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Dialogue on Social Enterprise

How do you mange the business of social change? That was the question students from Harvard Business School and John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG) grappled with at the Dialogue on Social Enterprise on February 24, 2001. As a new January cohort student, I was excited to see how the discussions would reveal the for-profit and non-profit means of addressing social change.

This year’s conference featured a powerful line-up of leading thinkers and protagonists in social enterprise. Stacey Childress, Director of the HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise introduced keynote speaker, Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. Mayor Williams’ lighthearted speech focused on his efforts to drive social change in the D.C. area by building partnerships between government, business and citizens groups. Mayor Williams sees social enterprise as a great opportunity for entrepreneurs who are not risk averse. “If you don’t want to take risks, do something else” he challenged the audience. He ended with a call to the HBS and KSG students to pursue positive social change in their careers, whether they be in business, government or non-profits.

After the keynote, participants divided up to think both globally and locally about strengthening community development. Taking the local perspective, panel focused on innovative approaches to youth development in the Boston area. Next door, a group that included a VC firm making renewable energy investments and a chocolate importer proposed diverse roles for the private sector in financing international sustainable development. It was fantastic to see the heightened excitement from the for-profit sector to make continuing investment in social enterprises. As leaders we need to be aware that the future of social change will be defined by the trust and collaborative efforts of all private, public and non-profit constituents.

The lunch sessions centered on careers in different social enterprise fields. During one of the more popular sessions HBS professor, Robert Kaplan experienced the trials of being an MBA student as he was “cold-called” by conference organizer Katherine Kaufmann (MBA ’01) to help shed light on the new field of venture philanthropy. Professor Kaplan shone through!

After lunch, participants “trekked” across the river to the KSG campus. The afternoon panels were filled with debate and discussion on the topics of social entrepreneurs, professional firms in the non-profit sector, innovative partnerships in community development, venture philanthropy and perspectives on educational improvement strategies.

As many conference attendees noted, the conference was a tremendous overall success, thanks to the hard work of the organizers and the commitment of the speakers and panelists. In the end, I felt the conference helped me get a whole lot closer to the answer to the question foremost in my mind: How will I personally manage and view the business of social change?

March 5, 2001
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